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The Georgia team celebrates after Soraya Hawthorne’s floor routine. The University of Georgia women’s gymnastics team hosted LSU to lose by a final score of 196.725-196.150 on Jan. 10, 2020, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com

Freshman GymDog Haley de Jong took a deep breath and fist-pumped assistant coach Josh Overton before jumping up on the uneven bars and hitting her first handstand right on top.

De Jong soared over the bar, and her attempt appeared effortless. De Jong posted the highest score for Georgia on bars against LSU on Jan. 10, with a 9.8. She currently competes on bars and beam is continuing to work on all four events.

Even as a freshman competing with a Georgia team already filled with talent, de Jong is beginning to find her rhythm.

De Jong is not alone, as 11 of the 15 GymDogs for the 2020 season are underclassmen, but the young team is already gaining experience while building mental and physical toughness along the way.

“From the first meet to the second, I’ve become more consistent and clean,” de Jong said. “I’m putting my heart into it.”

The work from de Jong and the other GymDogs promotes their vision for 2020 — one that embraces the mindset of attacking and leaving everything on the floor. De Jong has seen this attitude come to life through the freshmen.

“It’s determination,” de Jong said. “We have the training behind us, so we just have to have full confidence when we present. We have to go through our routines just like we do in practice.”

Other freshmen have already stepped up at the beginning of the season. Soraya Hawthorne scored a 9.825 on vault and one of three consecutive 9.95s on floor against LSU along with sophomore Rachael Lukacs and senior Sabrina Vega. Freshman Amanda Cashman also scored a 9.8 on vault.

“I’m trying to do exactly what I’ve been doing in training,” Cashman said. “We have the numbers to back it up. We just have to go for it and go big.”

The GymDogs also have seen themselves improve mentally in addition to physically. Despite the outside noise and intense energy inside Stegeman, they strive to remain focused on trusting their training and know that this will build confidence within them.

“In Junior Olympic (JO) gymnastics, it was a lot of individual stuff,” Cashman said. “I like having my teammates behind me and all the support around me.”

The GymDogs will compete for their first home win of the season when they host Iowa State on Jan. 20.

“It’s an incredible place that we’re at right now,” de Jong said. “I’m growing with the team and really becoming a part of it.”

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